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Top Story-Writing Tips to Learn How to Structure Plot with Save the Cat

After writing three novels, I’ve picked up a great deal from both my successes and my failures, including how to structure a story. And yet, I know there is so much more I haven’t discovered yet. 

One of the best things about being a writer and blogger is having the privilege of receiving advice from my fabulous fellow authors, and sharing their insights with you. So it’s an honor to welcome back the wonderful Jacqueline Ward with a continuation to her commentary on how she structures plot, the Save the Cat method, and reflections on her writing process (plus some personal anecdotes).

On to you, Jacqueline!

Story Structure: Save the Cat and More

I wrote a post for Damyanti on how I plot my psychological thrillers back in 2019 and she has kindly allowed me to come back to tell you what I have learned since then.

In my previous post I shared a plotting chart, and today I am sharing an outline for chapter breakdowns. You can find the link below, but first allow me to explain about how I came to use Save the Cat and at which point I abandon it.

I first came across Save the Cat when I attended screenwriting classes in Manchester. I was translating my novel Random Acts of Unkindness into a feature film script and, as I always do when I am trying to learn something, I read all the books I could on the subject.

One of them was Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and it really resonated with the material I was reading and watching by John Yorke. Fast forward four years and I saw that the famous screenwriting book had been re-hashed as Save the Cat Writes a Novel.

The principle was the same – a ready-made structure for your novels with examples of class novels to underpin the wisdom. I loved the idea, but it felt a little formulaic. I suspected it would strip the creativity out of my process and have me over-plot leaving no room for story.

Six months later I was in a room with a Big 5 editor.

Have you heard of ‘Save the Cat?’ she asked me.

I nodded.

‘Yes. I kind of use it.’

She leaned forward.

‘I think it’s brilliant. I ask all my authors to use it.’

This resonated with me. I went away and examined the crime and psychological thrillers I had been reading, and sure enough, most of them followed the Save the Cat structure. And in particular, the Midpoint. It had been puzzling me why so many books had an elongated setup, but now I knew. The authors had been sticking rigidly to the structure and mapping their novels onto it.

Chicken or egg?

I don’t know if it’s because authors like Save the Cat, or if editors and agents are asking for it, but since then it has become even more popular. In the past twelve months I have had offers for three of my lockdown psychological thrillers and one of them has recently stayed in the Amazon UK top 300 for more than a month. Each of these novels was plotted against Save the Cat and the editors have all commented positively on it.

So how do I plot with Save the Cat?

First, I read the book and worked through the website resources so that I understood the underpinnings.

Then I made a template. I always do a rough plot of my chapter themes before I start writing, but it began to make more sense and take shape once I mapped it onto the Save the Cat structure.

Then I transfer the chapter headings onto my manuscript template.

But once I start writing, I almost forget about it – on purpose.

Why forget about it after all that planning and plotting?

It’s about confidence. I found that having the structure there before I started writing was a huge confidence booster. My story was there, dancing inside the plot, already taking shape.

With the container all firmed up, I felt free to write the story. I use Save the Cat as guidance, not as fact. It’s there to help me see the theme and the path of the story, and what is in the distance as I write. I don’t stick religiously to it. But I do enjoy its support.

But there is one part of Save the Cat that I feel is essential to my storytelling.

The Midpoint

I love the midpoint. I love the way it flips the story and how everything is different after then. Before Save the Cat, I would start the ticking clock in my novels much earlier. Now, I use the midpoint to build the suspense to and the ramp up the mystery and clues and twists.

Once there, I want my novel to pick up even more pace and drive the reader to the dark night of the soul.

So what has changed in my plotting practice?

Everything is my previous post still stands – I have just improved it! 

I’ve been writing crime fiction and psychological thrillers for ten years now.

One question that comes up regularly is: do you know what you will write before you write it? My answer is a resounding yes! I am a plotter. I like to plan.

Initially, I was reluctant to plan as I thought it would somehow crush my creativity. As my writing practice developed I realised that, for me, plotting and creating is not an either/or situation. Rather, it is a balancing act.

I have learnt that my psychological thrillers are multi-dimensional and complex. To maintain balance, I let my imagination run riot. But during the writing process, I keep track of different dimensions of my novel on a plotting sheet.

I have filled it with an example for illustration purposes.  (You can download it at the end of this article.)

The following sections of the plotting sheet help to build the big picture of the story I am writing:

Complex novel structures – different ways of plotting (or not plotting!):
Not everyone wants or needs to keep track of their plot. But if you are writing a complex structure with plenty of strands and depth of subtext, at some point you will need to know where your story is going – and where it has been. Before I begin my novel, I take a blank plotting template and make columns for the dimensions of my story that will make up the world of my novel.

Story Arc – plotting the main story:
Sometimes I can use the plotting chart before I write to plot the beats or plot points of the main story. I might have a column for plot points I will populate initially with the initial ideas I have about the story, plotted against a three-act structure. This will give me an outline to work with, although I never feel that this is final, and I often change it as I write. I plot this in the chapter number column.

Who? – character arcs and development:
The Who? column is for characters. This is the mainstay of my novel, the people who will live in the novel world. I write their name and any details I need to know against the appropriate chapter. I might even split this into separate scenes where various characters appear. When I have completed a first draft, I colour code the characters so I can see the character arc.

Where? – mapping locations:
As well as people, places are very important. Not only does plotting them allow you to situate your characters but also to make sure you have got your continuity right. If Anita has flown to Spain in one scene, then later she is in a bar in London, then you need to explain how that has happened. Places also provide a backdrop for delicious description and an opportunity to add light and shade to your writing.

Strands: Timelines – working with backstory and non-linear timelines:
If I am working with different timelines, I will have a column in my plotting chart for each timeline. For example, in my latest novel my main character was narrating 1978 in the current time. I had a column for now and a column for 1978 and some characters populated both timelines. This was useful when looked back over the story.

Strands: Story Strands – working with multiple narrators:
Although my psychological thriller Perfect Ten had one narrator in first person/present tense, my other novels have had multiple narrators. This can become confusing as the individual stories need to be roughly aligned time-wise, and invariably during the novel their stories will collide. Plotting them allows an easy comparison of where they are in relation to each other.

Subtext – plotting different story strands:
The subtext of a story is the most difficult to plot because it is often intangible and sometimes does not show itself fully until the end of the novel. Often I have had that ‘Ah, so that’s what it’s about!’ moment as I am writing the final chapters. I like to leave a subtext column blank to fill in as I go along, or even retrospectively.

What happens next… 

Psychological thrillers are both character and plot driven. It is essential that chapters and scenes are economical and contain events that move the story along. So I always include a column in my plotting chart entitled: How Does This Move the Plot On? This is essential for me both when writing the first draft and on every edit afterwards. It helps me to avoid going off on a tangent and stops the characters wandering off on their own little sub-story.

Bringing it all together – my plotting chart:  When I have finished the first draft I use my plotting charts as a tool to look over my novel – a kind of summary of who, where, what, when and how. This forms the big picture of my novel. It’s useful, when I am writing, to remind myself where I am and what I need to do. But it has been invaluable at the editing stage.

My editor once sent me structural edits where a new character strand was needed. This meant removing a lot of backstory and adding a new voice – and ten thousand words! It also meant that I had to change the remaining story to reflect this new character and their story. My plotting chart made this so much easier to do as it meant that I already had my story laid out in front of me with existing plot points for reference.

I hope that my plotting chart is useful to you too – please adapt it to suit your own project.

CLICK HERE to download the Plotting Chart

CLICK HERE for the Chapter Breakdown Sheet.

Are you interested in how books are structured? If you’re an author, how do you usually structure your plot? Do you find it difficult? Is Save the Cat helpful to you?

My literary crime novel, The Blue Bar is on Kindle Unlimited now. Add it to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon is on Goodreads, and available for preorders! Signed copies are available in these independent bookstores. And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin.  Find all info about my books here or on Linktree.

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  • C. Lee McKenzie says:

    Save the Cat is brilliant. And how you’ve used it is also. Thanks for laying out your strategy.

  • Margaret Laing says:

    Jacqueline, thank you. The templates will update and bolster the notebook I keep with sketches and ideas for each of the 25 chapters in my first two (so far unpublished) mysteries. But I know how templates get with cover letters and other planned things. Do you ever find that carrying out a plan in one chapter leaves a character saying “I can’t do what you want me to” in a later chapter?

    • That’s a really good point, Margaret. I tend to plan up front, but as the story flows out I often have to change the plan! Characters first, as always. In my current novel my protagonist has just created a mindbending twist that mean I will need to go back to my plan and rethink.

  • Wow–this is amazing! I’m sending this to my writer group, which includes a couple writers who write thrillers. But I have a feeling these resources could be used by any writer in any genre!

    • Thank you so much, Rebecca. I hope they are useful to you group. The templates could indeed be used with any story, may need a bit of adapting but that also allows you to get to know the structure more.

  • Save the Cat is an awesome book! I started using that method when writing my second book.

  • I actually tried to plot my upcoming trilogy with Save the Cat’s methodology. So far, I think it worked pretty well.

  • Using the Save the Cat method would drive me crazy! I swear by the ‘W’ storyboard method, but not until I’m ready to revise. The novel I’m currently working on has character, date & time, and year charts and things to check in each chapter as I revise.

  • Now you tell me I’ve much to learn. I’m in the process of publishing my first novel, no wonder it took ten years from start to finish. . . just saying, Claudia

    • But congratulations on your novel, Claudia! Writing and publishing can be such a difficult process, and any accomplishment should be celebrated. It took me quite a while to get into the flow, but I learned a lot from trial and error.

    • Congratulations, Claudia! I wonder if we ever stop learning, I know I attended a class by John Yorke and felt like there was more exciting things to learn about plot and story. Thanks for reading.

  • literarylad says:

    Hi Jacqueline,

    Is this template mainly for thrillers and crime novels?
    I use similar tools to your charts. I keep a diary (as a spreadsheet) to put everything that happens (with chapter numbers) into chronological order. I keep a word doc for characters, and a folder for places. And I’ve got a spreadsheet for chapter breakdown. The only thing I don’t have is a column titled ‘how does this move the plot forward’. Why? Well, I’d say there are other reasons for creating text, such as describing characters and places. I don’t write in the same genres as you; more general or literary fiction. I would say (backed up by the books of many of my favourite authors such as Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, A. S. byatt) it’s no sin to have some material in your book that’s there for the sheer joy of reading and the poetry of writing.
    I’m afraid my experience of the publishing industry (from the outside) is that it’s narrow-minded, chronically lacking in imagination, and almost fascistic in the way it attempts to impose formulas on new writers. :¬[
    Thanks for an informative and useful article,

    • Jacqueline Ward says:

      ‘it’s no sin to have some material in your book that’s there for the sheer joy of reading and the poetry of writing.’ – exactly this. I use the above for guidance, but the story often makes its own sweet way forwards! Thank you for reading.

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